fresh | The Proof of the Pudding

This week we’re all about salads. But never fear, these are not limp salad leaves topped with a sad halved cherry tomato and slice of cucumber, nor an uninspiring pile of shredded iceberg lettuce. These are fresh, vibrant, interesting salads that are bursting with flavour and made for summer eating.

Today’s recipe is a sweetcorn salad. It’s sweet from corn and cherry tomatoes, savoury from onion and pepper, fragrant from coriander and zingy from lime juice. The dish can take on different guises, as the name suggests: keep the ingredients chunky as I did in order to serve it as a salad, or finely chop everything to turn it into a delicious salsa which could be served with tortilla chips. If you feel like something spicier then some finely chopped red chilli would be an excellent addition.

Ingredients 250g frozen sweetcorn 150g cherry tomatoes 6 spring onions Small bunch of coriander 1 red bell pepper 1 lime 1 tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper

Method 1. Remove the sweetcorn from the freezer and allow to defrost at room temperature for a few hours. Quarter the tomatoes, chop the spring onion into small pieces and finely chop the coriander. If you forget about the red pepper (read: I forgot to buy a red pepper) then just chop it into squares and add to the salad later!

This dish is the ideal side dish for a barbecue. The first time I made it we had it with chicken marinated in my homemade barbecue sauce and sticky glazed sausages, and the second was as part of a Spanish meal alongside barbecued paella and some small tapas dishes. It would transport well in a tupperware tub for a picnic, or, as I suggested above, chop it finely and serve as a starter. I think this just might be my new favourite summer salad!

How not to eat artichokes
Let’s talk about eating artichokes. Or perhaps we should start with discussing how not to eat artichokes. I’ll illustrate what I mean with a short anecdote, which I hope you’ll enjoy. I certainly do. It concerns a certain uncle of mine, who I am assuming won’t mind me sharing the story, but just in case we’ll disguise his identity and give him a code name: Uncle M (unbreakable, I know). Years ago Uncle M was out for dinner with colleagues at a fancy restaurant. Feeling adventurous he ordered the globe artichoke and was presented with a beautifully cooked whole artichoke. Having never eaten a whole artichoke before, Uncle M was a little bemused as to how to tackle the large, leafy vegetable, but not wanting to reveal his ignorance to his fellow diners and the waiter he grabbed a knife and fork and launched a full frontal attacked with gusto. Uncle M was immediately surprised by the toughness of the outer leaves, but by now, chewing away on the first of them, it was too late and there was nothing for it but to soldier on. By the end of the meal, outer leaves, choke and all, Uncle M had concluded that he categorically, without a doubt, did not like artichokes. In fact, it was a mystery to him why anyone on earth did like artichokes. Now, if you’ve ever eaten globe artichokes before you will already be chuckling to yourself superiorly at Uncle M’s expense. If you’ve never eaten them before, you may already have guessed that they should not be eaten in their entirety. The outer leaves are very tough and only hold a small amount of “meat” at the bottom. Indeed, most of them are tipped with an extremely sharp spike. Furthermore, once the leaves have been removed, but before the heart is reached, there is a small “choke” made up of a thin layer of hundreds of tiny bristles. By this point, even if you are completely unfamiliar with artichokes, I’m sure you can appreciate the unfortunate plight of Uncle M. Not an enjoyable experience or one that he will ever care to repeat, but it has certainly provided many laughs at the Christmas dinner table.

I’m actually not sure whether Uncle M’s initial artichoke experience put him off them for life, but if it did then it’s truly a shame. Artichokes are not only delicious, with a rich, savoury, earthy flavour, but when eaten correctly they are so much fun. As kids we would be extremely excited when dad came home from the allotment with a bowl full of artichokes and the promise of a tasty, interactive dinner with lashings of butter. If you’ve never tried artichokes before, or never cooked them yourself, I am encouraging you to do so right now. They might seem fiddly, or even daunting, but you will reap the rewards when it comes to eating. Artichokes are coming into season as we speak and I’ve seen them in the green grocers for a pound a globe. So if you see them the next time you’re at the shops pick up a couple and treat yourself to the best summer starter or the perfect dish as part of a summer spread.

How to prepare and cook artichokes

Globe artichokes growing in my dad’s allotment (photo credit: Dave Price with his swanky new iPhone)

Despite their uncompromising look, artichokes are actually a very versatile vegetable. In restaurants, and on tv, you often see artichokes stripped and chopped back to the “heart” – the chunk of meaty vegetable at the base of the flower. This can be used in any number of dishes, from dips to the Provençal classic Artichokes à la Barigoule to La Vignarola, which I blogged about a few weeks ago. Artichokes can also be eaten raw, with most of the outer leaves chopped back and rest thinly sliced. We were first introduced to raw artichoke in Italy by a friend of my dad’s and were immediate converts (again, as kids one of our favourite summer dishes was a pile of assorted chopped vegetables with individual pots of oil and vinegar to dip – a really great way to get kids eating their veggies!).

These are all delicious ways to enjoy artichokes, but to me it seems a shame to waste so much of the taste and entertainment from the outer leaves. The method I’m going to show you today is simply to boil the artichokes until tender, and then enjoy them in (almost) their entirety with a choice of dips.
Before boiling, you’ll need to do a little preparation. If your artichokes are organic or, even better, home-grown then you will probably want to soak them in salted water for about an hour to remove any tiny bugs that may be making a home inside the leaves. Of course, if you adhere to the old dad-ism of “a bit of extra protein never hurt anyone” then you can skip this step, but personally I’m just a bit too squeamish. So here we have step one: 1. Place the artichokes in a large bowl of salted water, weigh down with a plate if necessary and leave for one hour. Remove, shake dry and store in the fridge if you are not cooking with them immediately.

2. Cut the stalk right back to the base of the globe and use scissors or a sharp knife to remove the very outer leaves, so you are left with tight leaves in a perfect round shape.

3. Bring a large pan of heavily salted water to the boil and drop the artichokes in. The cooking time will depend on the freshness of the artichoke and how large it is. A very large artichoke can take 20, or even 30, minutes to cook, but smaller ones that have been picked recently will probably only take about 10. The best bet is to be conservative with the initial timing, grab one out the water with tongs or a slotted spoon and test an outer leaf. If the leaf pulls away easily then the artichoke is ready, if not then pop it back in the pot for 5 minutes, and repeat.

Once cooked, remove the artichokes from the water and serve. You will probably want to wait 5 minutes for the artichokes to cool slightly, to avoid any kind of tongue-burning incident.

How to eat artichokes

Now that your artichoke is perfectly cooked we have arrived at the best bit. Arm yourself with your dip of choice. Ross loves the classic of melted butter, but I prefer the sharper continental combination of olive oil and balsamic vinegar (season both to your taste with salt and pepper). If you have the time then I can highly recommend this recipe by the lovely Simon Hopkinson. The rich, but sharp dressing is ideal.
Begin to remove the leaves, dip and use your front teeth to scrape out the tender vegetable from the bottom. At first the leaves will only yield a morsel of artichoke and you will be all like “Yeah right Anna, is this it?”. However, the closer you get to the centre, the more of the leaf you will be able to eat until you can pull out bunches at a time and eat them right up to the spiky tip. And I will be all like “I told you so”.

Hopefully the choke will become obvious, as you reach the base of the artichoke. Use a knife to scrape/cut away the choke and reveal the tender heart underneath. This is all edible, so smother it in butter or oil and chomp it in one go. Done.

I really hope that this post has inspired you to get cooking with artichokes. Thank me later, but while you enjoy them spare a little thought for poor Uncle M.

There is something utterly intoxicating about the smell of fresh pesto: the fragrant scents of basil and pine nut oil, mixing with the heady smell of garlic and the pungency of parmesan is enough to drive me c-razy. I really think I could eat an entire batch with a spoon, straight from the blender container. Spread it on some toasted sourdough and top with cherry tomatoes: divine. Stir it through fresh pasta and sprinkle with extra parmesan: I’m in food heaven. Obviously you can use whatever pasta you like – fresh egg pasta from the shop or just dried store-cupboard pasta. But if you’re feeling like a real treat then you can follow my recipe for homemade pasta dough. I cut the pasta on the thinnest setting, because it reminds me of the fresh pasta that my parents would always buy from a local Italian deli when we had fresh pesto for dinner, and that makes me happy.

To call this a recipe is really a gross exaggeration. We’re basically grabbing a pile of ingredients and letting the blender do all the work. I’ve given you the rough quantities that I used in our pesto on Sunday, but there’s no right answer here and it can change from batch to batch. This is my mum’s recipe and her classic answer to a question about quantities is “some”, which tells you all you need to know about making pesto. You can make your pesto personal to your own taste by adjusting the amounts of all the different flavours after the first blend. You can even go fancy and toast the pine nuts or add other green leaves like rocket, but in my opinion this is the best version of pesto. Ever. Keep it simple folks.

The only secret here is good quality ingredients: use the best olive oil and parmesan that you have or can afford and it will lift the flavour of the pesto by an unimaginable amount. You will need a surprising amount of basil leaves, and so it’s probably most economical to buy a couple of plants from the supermarket, cut most of the leaves off to use in the first batch, but keep enough on the plant so that you can water it and bring it back to life: hey presto, pesto all summer!

Ingredients (makes a generous serving for 4) Basil leaves from 2 – 2½ plants (or 2-3 small bunches of basil) 3 small handfuls of pine nuts 2 small handfuls of grated parmesan 3 crushed garlic cloves 4-6 tbsp good quality olive oil

Salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Method 1. Cut the leaves from the basil plant, or from the stalks if you are using bunches of picked basil. Squash the leaves inside the blender container and top with the pine nuts, parmesan, garlic, olive oil and a generous amount of seasoning.

2. Blend until smooth. Taste to check the seasoning and adjust as you like.

Use on the day of making, or you can put it in a jar or tupperware container, drizzle the surface with olive oil and store in the fridge for at least a week.

We had the pesto with my homemade tagliolini, and a simple green salad. With a bottle of wine and some lovely company, it was the perfect Sunday dinner.

Do you have your own pesto recipe? What do you do differently?